Returning after 14 years - Philip Webster

I traveled to Bhola Island, Bangladesh in May 2015 to visit Fred and the CO-ID team for 5 days. My last visit was 2001, so I expected things to have changed a lot since then, and it didn’t disappoint.

This time I took the ferry by myself for the overnight trip to Bhola, and it was quite surreal to be greeted by Amzud on my arrival. He had grown from just a boy into a strong and handsome young man with a wife and two children since my last visit 14 years prior.

The first thing I noticed that had changed was the presence of so many motorized vehicles, in particular motorbikes. Motorbikes really lend themselves to this environment. The roads are narrow and mostly sealed now, and of course motorbikes are so economical to run. Although I noticed to my surprise that the price of fuel was similar to that in Australia. However there is certainly a growing middle-class able to afford and run these bikes and other vehicles; and there was also far more brick buildings and electrical power to so many more places over Bhola Island.

I was really impressed with the local Char Fassion markets. They seem to have expanded 10-fold since my last visit, with nearly everything available and nice shiny tiled floors as opposed to mud floors. One could even purchase oranges that had been imported; yet again you paid about the same you would for an orange in Australia – further signs of a growing more affluent middle-class.

It was great to see Fred in his own back yard once again. He had a larger team now, and they were all so respectful of Fred. Fred would be without power for nearly half the day it seemed, with frequent power cuts to the whole area.

Although they all just got on with it, despite the stifling heat and humidity. The new office building was impressive in all its design and planning and was almost ready to move into during my visit.

I spent most of the my time in Char Fassion visiting about 9 CO-ID schools and taking photographs of the teachers and children. Each day I would set out on the back of a motorbike, being doubled by Yasin, a very capable driver. It was such an efficient way to get around not to mention fun also, compared to my previous visit, where all our travel was done by the very slow and uncomfortable cycle rickshaw.

During my visit to the schools a regular pattern emerged. Yasin would phone ahead that we were on our way. So teachers would come out to greet us as we pulled up on the motorbike and removed our helmets. I would get a very enthusiastic greeting from all students, followed by the obligatory food and water offering. Often banana, coconut, and biscuits. One school sang their national anthem for me and then promptly asked that I sing the Australian Anthem in return, for which I happily obliged. Fortunately I knew just the one verse that we always sing at home.

I took numerous photos of the children – most of whom gave me a big smile without too much encouragement. I found all the teachers to be very friendly and most pleased that I was visiting their school. They were all so very proud to be working at a CO-ID school. My farewell on leaving a school was equally as fond as my greeting.

On these trips Yasin would like to occasionally stop along the way to take a cup of tea or simply to refuel. Refueling usually involved a hand pump from a 44 gallon drum. These stops along the way always drew curious onlookers. It is not often a westerner drops by one of these remote villages on Bhola Island. So many people are staring at you, studying you meticulously up and down, hanging on your every word – curious to hear a foreigner speak in a foreign language.

In all it was a brief but very enjoyable visit to Bhola and CO-ID. I first visited back in 1996 because I thought the CO-ID and Fred Hyde story was a remarkable one, and today it is an even more remarkable story. To think how many thousands of children CO-ID has helped over all these years. Children whom are now adults like Amzud, whom are now educated and contributing meaningfully to a burgeoning economy on Bhola Island and beyond.

Philip Webster


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